In 2010, a hill range in India grabbed the headlines all across the world. Two of the world’s biggest activist organisations - Amnesty and Survival International, decided to make Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha as their own cause. They had framed a powerful narrative - an MNC vs a tribe trying to save a mountain.
The movie Avatar had won three Oscars that year. Survival International cleverly placed an ad in the Hollywood Variety magazine appealing to the Avatar director James Cameron to help the Dongria Kondh tribe of Niyamgiri who they compared to the Na'vi tribe of the movie. They even got their activists painted in blue and staged a global photo-op in London.
In India, things took a political turn. This was the second term of UPA. Rahul Gandhi entered the fray. In a public meeting at the foothills of the Niyamgiri, he declared that he was a Sipahi of the tribals and would not allow any mining.
It was in this backdrop that I joined Vedanta in 2011. This was the first time that the resources behemoth had hired a group head for corporate communications. While Vedanta had large operations in India, Zambia, South Africa, Australia and Ireland, spanning iron ore, zinc, silver, bauxite, copper and oil, it was natural that my first job was to restore Vedanta’s dented reputation around Niyamgiri.
I made it a point to spend some days in Odisha and in Lanjigarh, where Vedanta set up an alumina refinery. The raw material for this refinery was to come from the state owned Odisha Mining Corporation that was supposed to mine bauxite from Niyamgiri hills. Both these places are in Kalahandi district, a place that last made news in the 1980s on account of starvation deaths.
The most optimum way for me to get an understanding of the ground situation was to meet the Dongria Kondhs and visit Niyamgiri. I set off in the early morning with a couple of local officials from the refinery. Many of the Kondh families stayed at the foothills of Niyamgiri. I visited a few of them. They were blissfully unaware of the storm they had created across the world. In fact, they were quite happy that, after Vedanta had built a hospital, they did not need to make the long trip to the nearby town of Bhawanipatna.
Now, it was time for me to visit the world famous hill. Our SUV went up the dirt tracks and passed several villages. After some time, human habitation disappeared and we were driving up a winding path. Trees, plants and creepers had encroached into the mud track and the sound of leaves and branches hitting the windscreen became a constant refrain.
The vehicle suddenly screeched to a halt. A giant tree had fallen on the road. My companions suggested that we turn back. There was no way I was going to return without getting to the top of the hill - the proposed site of the bauxite mine.
I suggested that we hike up the hill. They reluctantly agreed. After around 15 minutes of uphill climb, my two tired companions told me to go ahead as they waited for me. I made the last 15 minutes of the trek to the top of the hill alone. This was unlike any other hill that I have seen before. The top was flat like a plateau and it was covered with grass and reddish brown rocks.
The journey back looked uneventful. As our vehicle gingerly made its way down, it was stopped again - this time by a motorbike right on the path. A strapping young man asked the driver to get down. My companions also got out of the vehicle. From my seat, I could see all of them engaged in animated conversations.
After some time, they came back and said that the young man whose name was TS said that he will not allow us to proceed further. I quickly whispered, at no point of time, should TS know that I have come from Delhi.
The wait was long. Probably it was longer in my mind. We had already crossed lunch time some time back. However, hunger and thirst were not my agenda at all
As the shadows lengthened, the young man probably got bored and let us off with a warning.
I came back to Delhi and in around a week’s time, I flew to London. Vedanta was a London listed FTSE100 company at that time and I had a series of meetings set up with investors, media and other stakeholders.
In the middle of one of the meetings, my Blackberry beeped with a Google alert on Niyamgiri. This was about a firing incident between a group of Naxals and paramilitary forces in the area. The group had escaped but there was one casualty. The name of the person who died in the encounter was a familiar one - TS.
I immediately called up the officials who accompanied me on that fateful trip. They confirmed that it was the same TS who had stopped us on our way back.
The reality struck me hard. I had escaped being part of an international incident by a sheer stroke of luck.Ten years later, Niyamgiri still remains resolute and defiant. No mining has taken place till now.
During my fateful trip in 2011, I had picked up two small reddish brown stones as memorabilia, making me perhaps the only one who has extracted bauxite from Niyamgiri!
Senjam Raj Sekhar is the head of Global Communications at Mobile Premier League, an esports and gaming platform with operations in India, United States and Indonesia. He has led communications mandates for companies across multiple geographies including UK, USA, Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa and South Asia.